Books Ain’t Never Gonna Lose Their Shine

I’m a child of technology. Well a 30 something child of technology then. I have the usual spread – an iPad, a smart phone, a MacBook Pro etc etc. And I love to read. So it made logical sense to me when I’m travelling that having my books on my iPad is a good thing. So I have lots of books downloaded onto my iPad. Easy to read, easy to store, battery runs long enough for me not to have to think about charging until I’m somewhere I can charge it.

Some say it’s the harbinger of doom for the printed word; these ereading gadgets. I think that’s inaccurate and short sighted. Nothing will replace the joy of walking into a bookshop with no particular place to be and just enjoying hours of browsing, maybe relaxing with a friend over a drink and discussing your current literary and not so literary interests. I like having books, I like touching books and I love the smell of a new book sitting in my hands. Even those second hand bookshop wares have a certain pre-loved scent to them, always inspiring that moment of wonder for me as I contemplate what kind of life this book has had and how many others have enjoyed it’s words?

I love the whole sense of anticipation that here in your hands is potentially another great adventure to get lost in, another fascinating look into a topic of science that compels your interest, an opportunity to learn how to cook better, a chance to explore another country and the possibility that you might discover another author with whom you fall in love with their writing so much so that you simply must gather every single tome by them. Laugh, cry, confound, astound, perplex, thrill, scare and ache with all your heart – these are the emotions that can be wrought by that well written book that engages you. So no matter how many downloaded books I ever own nothing will replace the experience of bookshop browsing and holding the book in your hands. They might on the other hand help me keep my book collecting ways under some semblance of control so that the books don’t outnumber the bookshelf space and the bookshelves don’t start forming their own city skylines. This is a good thing.

This actually wasn’t supposed to be a post about love of books and how technology will not be the death of the printed book. I actually was thinking more about the publishing industry itself. And my own reading habits. I read a lot of text online. Ranging from feature articles, editorials, opinion pieces and predominantly a lot of fan fiction. Fan fiction consistently just blows me away with the quality of the writing. And what astounds me is that I get to read such amazingly well written stories, that just have me completely absorbed, for free! Now I don’t know who these authors are, I’ve never met them, there’s no official bios on them and some I am sure already are in the writing business professionally, but the point is – they gain a following based on NOTHING but the strength of their writing. Sure other fan fiction readers might recommend them but within a paragraph or two readers easily discern the smoke blowin’ praises from the legitimate ones. I’ve read stories in several fandoms now – Smallville, Supernatural, Stargate, Fringe, Due South, Dexter and Sherlock. There are writers in their whose command of prose composition just makes me yearn to read more. And they are not making any kind of money off these works and yet I happened to check out some supposedly “best selling” works in the romance genre the other day and I was baffled as to how anyone even saw it worthy of using ink on let alone publishing and selling millions of the ‘novel’.

I get that the Harlequin romance has a fairly embedded structural features and language type but what I don’t get is how no matter which writer I seem to sample (from the most awarded to the most average – from the veteran writers of the genre to brand new to the scene ones) it all seems to be of the same very ordinary, very cliched and very formulaic quality. Why hasn’t the writing improved in this genre? Is it so formulaic that publishers won’t deviate from it? They have their market niche completely analysed and they know exactly what will and won’t sell?

I don’t know. All I know is that I was shocked that something described as a best seller (and perhaps I should find and clarify the parameters of such a phrase) was just so….8th grade standard. I would know. I’ve read 8th grade stories, the sentence structures didn’t vary too much. Now I’m thinking that as an English teacher marking 8th grade stories that perhaps my standards are too high? Expecting some originality, some unique style, some deviation from the expected, something that surprises me with how not formulaic it is.

I don’t think I’m a book snob either. I happily read what I call trashy fiction or even non-fiction if it entertains me.  Bridget Jones’ Diary for example. Or Twilight. I’ll read Ellen Biographies. These are not the upper echelons of literary greatness and nor were they ever supposed to be. Your content doesn’t have to be serious or even realistic or of great import in any way shape or form. But it does need to use language well, have good sentence structure, it needs to use words to their best effect. None of the excerpts I read even came remotely close. I know this happens in all the genres. But not from those authors who are best sellers or who have been established in the genre a long time. There is development within the genre and you can see there are different standards. I have not found that in the Romance genre and I find that baffling as well as mildly unscrupulous. I’m pretty sure those best selling authors in the genre would know what good writing looks like, they would appreciate the turn of phrases chosen by Ann Rice versus Stephenie Meyer. They would have an understanding of what it looks like. I get the distinct impression that they’re quite happy to peddle their wares in the romance genre and call them brilliant examples of writing whilst sitting back laughing their asses to the bank as they get paid for what they truly know is at best very mediocre writing and at worst no better than an 8th grader’s composition. Of course you can detect a streak of envy in my tone – dammit why aren’t I making money the easy way by doing this but mostly it’s one of How could they? I guess if you have enough people telling you it’s great and you have the full endorsement of a big publishing company it’s probably pretty easy to let yourself just go with the flow.

Maybe I just need to look harder within the romance genre – perhaps I just haven’t looked enough and there really is some well written stories out there. For now I think I’ll go back to my fan fiction though. There is no doubt that there will be quality writing there for me to read about my favourite characters.

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The Allure of Mediocrity

Everyone should be mediocre in their lives at some point or other. It gives perspective and relevance to when our lives are spectacularly awesome or devastatingly horrible. Mediocre is an okay place to be but you have to be careful you don’t unwittingly get stuck there. It’s like the stealthy ninja of the behavioural addiction problems humans are prone to. Alcohol, gambling, food, drugs and sex addictions – they get all the fanfare and hog the attention spotlight. Mediocrity? Not so much. It’s so incredibly easy to just live day to day with the back of your mind thought of “That will do.” “That’s good enough.” “Nobody is perfect so this will be fine” or even the more conscious deliberate thought of “How much do I actually have to do here to meet the minimum requirements?” None of these thoughts are problem signs of addiction per se but if they become everyday, all the time stalwarts then you’ve probably become addicted to that mediocre approach to everything. And you better watch out because if you don’t stem that tide you’ll be drowning in apathy before you know it.

As far as sweeping generalised statements go this one is pretty big but I have to say that I believe Australians are probably the experts at apathy. We like to euphemise our apathy with words like -Australians are so casual, laid back, easy going, relaxed but let’s be honest even our fired up parliamentary sessions or lively political debates look pretty tame when you consider the extreme displays seen outside this country. We actually all probably have fairly strongly held opinions on the issues but we really need lots of poking and prodding and goading and cajoling to first get those opinions heard and second to actually provoke any kind of course of action as a result. I wonder if this is a culturally specific malaise? Which is all very fancy talk for the question of Why are Australians so bloody lazy when it comes to issues they all feel strongly about???? Things like climate change, immigration, foreign policy, planned parenthood, welfare, health reforms. I certainly include myself amongst them – and I think the word disillusioned is definitely part of it. But that’s a cop out too.

Why was I doing all this thinking about mediocrity? Well I was thinking about my sport of choice – dog agility. And I like how it caters to all levels of commitment. From the social butterfly type who simply just attends training and trials really in order to hang out with friends and chat, maybe even share some food and a wine or two. Then there are those who aspire to move through the levels – they need a slightly higher level of dedication if they want to make it to Masters level but they still very much have a hobby like approach. Then there are the weekend warriors – they are the highest level here in Australia as we simply do now have the population in the sport to allow for the European or American types who do nothing but agility 7 days a week and earn income from it. We call them Career agility types. No in Australia we have the weekend warriors who still have some sort of full or part time job (often unrelated to agility) but who spend many evenings and weekends and spare time honing their skills making sure their dogs are fit and well conditioned and who seek to find the best instruction and read as much as they can. Our National winners and the ones who compete internationally are these types. So in agility it is fine to be mediocre. It is also fine to be barely trained at trialling level and it is totally acceptable to be dedicated enough that you engage in other activities that help your performance. Every single one of us was mediocre at one point no matter how elite our performances become. None of us started off elite in any sport. Possibly slightly more talented and advantaged by skill or form but never elite to start with. Mediocre has a place in letting us see progress and I like that. For some it’s a place they are quite content to live for the rest of their sport going careers and for others it’s a place to move on from. Agility welcomes all types and I love that about my sport. Most of the time I try to rise above the allure of mediocrity because that’s the way I’m wired. This is one of the people in the world who inspire such wiring. He has a freakishly huge set of lungs so yes physically he’s advantaged but that doesn’t mean he has ever managed to skip the preparation part. If he’s considered lucky after winning 7 Tour De France races well then it’s because he’s put in the most prep.